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Five teams of top, young journalists set out from Myanmar's commercial hub of Yangon to better understand how the country is changing under a reform-minded government. Travel along with these 20 reporters — 11 Burmese and 9 American — as they journey the ancient Burma Road, through the country's capitals past and present, down the Irrawaddy Delta, onto Inle Lake and across Yangon itself at a critical time in the country's history.

Frontier Economy: With a boom on the line, Yangon's workers fight for rights

The right to organize is a new freedom in Myanmar, but there are strings attached. As investors eye the country's manufacturing sector, there is little interest in becoming the next Bangladesh.

YANGON, Myanmar — In the back of the Sanchaung Township courthouse, where bureaucrats clack away on aging typewriters, a short dirt path leads to the jail.

Behind wooden bars sit three young labor organizers from the Taw Win wood and furniture factory. They have been imprisoned for more than a month, accused of leading an illegal protest and destroying property during a lengthy dispute with their employer.

In the women’s section, Ei Zar Phyu, 24, wears a yellow blouse and sniffs eucalyptus at regular intervals to stay fresh. The walls are stained red with betel nut spittle; visitors hand prisoners meals packed in white styrofoam. A door sized for a child's playhouse is the cell's only exit.

Nay Lin Oo, 21, and Zin Myo Ko Ko, 22, are in the men's section. All were arrested following a violent altercation at the factory that, for many here, has come to symbolize the weaknesses in the country’s new labor rights laws. In 2011, the country's new, reformist government passed a law that permits unions and strikes, making them legal for the first time since 1962. A second law governing disputes soon followed.

Since then Yangon’s factory workers have formed an estimated 600 unions. Many have gone on strike, sometimes gathering by the thousands. Some have signed new contracts with employers, negotiating small pay raises or pushing management to add extra bathrooms or rest days.

“There's potential in the new system here to avoid a Bangladesh situation.”
~Ross Wilson

But many inside and outside the country say Myanmar has yet to create a framework for productive, lasting worker-employer dialogues that will protect workers and ensure that employers have a safe, reliable workforce. Employees say they are fired, jailed and beaten for organizing. Employers say workers strike even after they agree not to.

"In the previous government we could not protest," said Nanda Sit Aung, 32, a former political prisoner who recently founded a worker rights center in Hlaing Thar Yar, a Yangon industrial zone with more than 500 factories. "We were arrested, interrogated, tortured. In the new government, we can protest, but we get nothing."

After years of isolation, Myanmar is poised for rapid economic growth. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, which released an extensive report on the country's economic potential last month, a smartly-managed Myanmar could quadruple the size of its economy by 2030. Such growth could create an estimated 10 million nonagricultural jobs.

This line of analysis says the manufacturing industry will be the country's golden ticket out of poverty. But many Western investors insist they will only put capital into Myanmar if the government demonstrates it will enforce the new laws it passes.

And particularly after a disaster in Bangladesh killed more than 1,000 garment factory workers, investors care not just about how cheap the labor is — but about avoiding labor catastrophes.

"There's potential in the new system here to avoid a Bangladesh situation," said Ross Wilson, who runs the Freedom of Association Project at the Yangon office of the International Labor Organization. "But it's not done by simply ignoring the problems and defects in the law and the system."

The efficacy of the labor laws, said Sean Turnell, an economist and Myanmar expert, matters to investors for both "soft-hearted" and "hard-headed" reasons. "It's not just about human rights and labor rights," he said. "It is about having an environment that is politically and economically stable that delivers productivity.’’


The 2011 Labor Organization Law grants workers the right to unionize and strike and prohibits employers from retaliating against those who do so. The 2012 Labor Dispute Law requires employers to comply with agreements made before a conciliation body. Penalties for employers who break the laws, however, are light — no more than $100 or less than year in jail.

Across Yangon, then, there are factories where workers have struck for weeks at a time, come to an agreement with their employers, smiled in front of the media and parliamentary officials, and then had nothing change.

"I've had many cases where workers have come and said, 'We've reached a settlement and the employer is ignoring it,'" said Wilson. "That can only last for so long before workers become disillusioned with that process and try more direct and confrontational ways of getting results."

At the Taw Win timber factory, about 200 newly